In the Fall of 1977, I started my freshman year in college, directly across the Bay from San Francisco. Though city elections in San Francisco did not directly affect most of the population of the Bay Area, it was naturally big news that an openly gay candidate was campaigning for a seat on the city’s Board of Supervisors. For all that one might dig up many flaws of Harvey Milk, he had a certain genius for publicity, and his campaign was on broadcast news nearly nightly, and was regularly covered on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle.
It may see difficult to imagine in the 21st Century, with such progress having been made as we have come to see, but in 1977, it was a HUGE story that an openly gay candidate was running for office in a major city. It made the news in many markets around the country. And, despite San Francisco’s reputation as a haven for homosexuals, and despite its large and visible LGBTQ population, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that Milk would win the seat. But the year before, San Francisco had created districts within the city which allowed its “neighborhoods” to elect a supervisor, rather than electing all candidates “at large.”
Milk already had a reputation for effective politics in the City’s Castro Neighborhood, and that voting district voted for Milk in November of 1977. This news — an openly gay man winning political office in a major city — was reported nation-wide, and spawned countless editorials both praising and deploring the result. And, inevitably, it also fostered numerous death threats, prompting Milk to say, “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door”.
Milk was in office lass than a year, but in that year he continued to display a talent for publicity. He sponsored an ordinance that prohibited discrimination against people because of sexual orientation. It was, then, the most comprehensive and powerful such protection enacted in the nation. Only Supervisor Dan White voted against the measure. Milk also sponsored a stringent “Pooper-scooper Law” that occasioned both publicity and broad approval. I will never forget KRON news footage of Milk launching his drive to pass this ordinance, during which Milk (surely by design and planning) “happened” to step in a pile of dog excrement as he walked with his interviewer!
On Monday 27 November 1978, my brother and I were returning home from Thanksgiving break, riding a bus back to campus when we heard the horrible news. A passenger who had a small transistor radio cried out, “They’ve shot the mayor and Harvey Milk!” By the time we reached our residence, the news was everywhere. The campus was stunned and everyone in the house was glued to the TV in the basement. I wanted to cry. I wanted to shout out how hideous this was. I wanted to scream. But I did not. The crowd was focussed on the killing of Mayor George Moscone; Milk was hardly mentioned.
At that time, at that age, I did not acknowledge to anyone that I was gay. It would take me many more years to start the process of accepting myself for who and what I am. But Harvey Milk had shown me a possibility for hope. Harvey Milk’s election gave me an inkling that one day it might be possible to be openly gay and to accomplish things beyond the negative, pervasive stereotypes. But Milk’s assassination also showed me something else.
With all the commentary and talk being focussed on the killing of the Mayor, I ventured to comment, “Supervisor Milk was killed too!”
I cannot recall who said this, but the reply I received dropped on me like a giant stone.
“What did he expect?”